Interactive, Asynchronous On-line Discussions

A guest post by Nance S. Wilson, State University of New York at Cortland

This post describes how teachers can engage students in interactive, asynchronous on-line discussions. These discussions not only play an important role in online and hybrid classes; but are critical to assuring active participation by students. On-line discussions can also enhance students’ academic performance (Althaus, 1997), and promote higher-order thinking and critical thinking skills when discussion activities are properly designed (Larkin-Hein, 2001).

However, assuring that asynchronous discussions are truly interactive is a difficult proposition as students are often concerned with their grades and completing their assignments. Sun and Gao (2016) identified issues with the traditional threaded discussion forums because “the chronological and hierarchical structure fails to show the interrelationships of postings or the importance of threads, which may prevent effective discussions from happening” (p. 73).

Therefore, the instructor must use a variety of tools to design the discussion in a manner that compels students to interact with each other (Maddox, 2012; Wood & Bliss, 2016).

My research has revealed two important tools for this structuring in an online course. The first tool is the design of the discussion itself.  The second is the application utilized to facilitate the discussion.  This is true whether the asynchronous discussion occurs in a hybrid or completely on-line setting. The lessons reported in this post are from an on-line disciplinary literacy class with graduate and undergraduate students.

Interactive, asynchronous discussions should be designed around giving students multiple opportunities to collaborate around a single text and/or topic.  In my study of the on-line literacy class, students were asked to complete a series of activities around a textbook (Kane, 2011). For instance, when reading Chapter 3, students were given the following directions:

This is a collaborative reading activity. That means that you will work with your collaborative reading group in OneNote. You will also keep personal notes in your Collaborative Reading Personal Notes Journal. 

Go to Chapter 3 of the Kane textbook. 

Skim the chapter. 

Create three of your own questions to guide your reading of the chapter. (Note: In an earlier module students were introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy and what makes a good question.)

Using OneNote, visit the Collaborative Reading Group. Share all of your questions with your small group by midnight September 29th.  You should also share the following with your group:  

  • Think about how you interact with your textbooks. Do you always read assignments? Why, or why not?
  • Do your teachers actually show you how best to read and use your textbooks?
  • Is it necessary to read the textbooks in order to do well in the classes?
  • Do your teachers know when a significant percentage of students don’t read the assigned material? If so, what is their reaction? Do they do anything about it, or try to find out why the text wasn’t read? Are there consequences?
  • What will you do if your students don’t read the textbook assignments you give? (Kane, 2011, p. 58)

Note/Mark the questions in the group collaboration space that you believe will help you comprehend the chapter and tell your group mates why. This happens asynchronously.

The discussion leader will use what you say about the questions to determine 3 to 5 questions you will answer beyond the guiding questions presented below. This needs to be completed by midnight September 30th.

Read the chapter individually. As you read, find the answers to your questions, answer the question below, and take notes in your Collaborative Reading Personal Notes Journal create a new journal entry and make sure that you include your responses to the questions from your group citing specific information from the reading and looking for ideas to use in your future classroom as well as personal notes to help develop your understanding of the chapter.

Also, answer the following question: 

Imagine that you are being interviewed for a teaching job in your content area. The search committee, consisting of a principal, a curriculum coordinator, and several teachers, informs you that the school you hope to work in has a policy of using no textbooks! They ask you to surmise what the philosophy underlying this decision might be and ask you what kinds of materials you would use and how you would teach under these circumstances. Write in your Journal, thinking through how you might envision your job and answer your interviewers (Kane, 2011, p. 85). 

After reading go back to your group collaboration page (OneNote) for the readings and share three things with your group:   

  1.  any problems you had with any of the questions
  2. a response to one question created by your group (not previously answered in the collaboration section by a member of your group)
  3. something from the reading that you can use in your future classroom or that you wish you had in school or that made you think about reading in your discipline.  

After sharing with your group, respond to at least one group member regarding their after-reading posts.

Notice that the directions encourage students to engage in multiple discussion opportunities with their peers. The first begins around a pre-reading of the chapter.  During reading, the students are working independently in a traditional BlackBoard journal (see figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Excerpt from a BlackBoard Journal

After reading, students return to their group to share their thoughts and talk asynchronously.  The back and forth of the actual assignment around the reading models both the interactive reading process and requires that students share with one another their reading process. It is important that students share their thinking processes because this helps to develop their metacognitive thinking about the content as well as the reading process (Paris & Winograd, 1990, Garrison, 2003; Akyol, & Garrison, 2011). Thus, the design of the discussion facilitates the students as they engage in interactive conversations and helps to build thinking and learning in an on-line environment (Wood & Bliss, 2016).

The second tool, Microsoft OneNote, was chosen because it offers students opportunities to move beyond the vertical written asynchronous discussion.  In order to facilitate the discussion, the instructor divides the students into small groups and then sets up a notebook for each small group of students.  In OneNote student notebooks, there can be pages and subpages to differentiate between sections.  For instance, each module can have a page.  Then within the module page students can set up sub-pages for before, during and after reading tasks to be completed with the group.  On each page, students post into text boxes.  They can place their text boxes vertically and horizontally (See Figures 2 & 3).  Students can also insert audio comments (See Figure 3).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Overview of a OneNote Notebook

Figure 3

Figure 3: Close up of OneNote Conversation

Thus, using OneNote as a tool changes the nature of the discussion from “prompt to response” to “prompt to response to response:” to “student created questions to response to a student to student conversation.” By changing the format of the conversation from a purely print-based vertical format students are able to have asynchronous conversations on-line that more closely mirror a live discussion.  The discussion can be viewed with or without viewing the names of the participants.  The figure above is an example of how OneNote works with students’ creation of questions.

The figures are an overview of an extended conversation.  Figure 1 demonstrates students posting their initial pre-reading questions on the left while different group members discuss the questions to the right.  As the respond to each other’s posts, they indent or move their statements or questions further to the right.  The bottom left of figure 1 is a synthesis of the discussion by the discussion leader.

Figure 2 is also a look into a pre-reading discussion around questions.  You will notice how students identify questions that they like to the right of the questions posted.  Please will also notice that there are two audio posts.  The audio posts have student’s thoughts on the questions.  The content is similar to the post the written responses.  In both figures, you will notice that as students work to finalize their questions for reading they are discussing why they believe different questions will support them during reading with each student going back and forth at least two times before the leader uses the thoughts to develop final questions.

The figures of the discussions are just a glimpse of how careful design of both the discussion opportunity and the thoughtful selection of the tool can create a non-linear asynchronous discussion that supports students to develop a careful reading of the assigned text while engaging in a discussion that is interactive and multimodal.

Microsoft OneNote offers a way to build student engagement and involvement without some of the pitfalls of traditional on-line discussions threads. Since the discussions are not limited by chronological and/or hierarchical structure, students are able to think through their responses while providing a structure that promotes connecting ideas thus avoiding one of the negative issues of threaded discussions, inefficiency in promoting interactive dialogues due to structure (Thomas, 2002).  The move away from traditional threaded discussions allows students to post in a structure that follows more of a natural progression, such as one that would occur in a face-to-face class.


Akyol, Z., & Garrison, D. R. (2011). Assessing metacognition in an online community of inquiry. The Internet and Higher Education, 14(3), 183-190.

Althaus, S. L. (1997). Computer-mediated communication in the university classroom: An experiment with online discussions. Communication Education, 46, 158–174.

Garrison, D. R. (2003). Cognitive presence for effective asynchronous online learning: The role of reflective inquiry, self-direction and metacognition. Elements of quality online education: Practice and direction, 4, 47-58.

Kane, S. (2011). Literacy & Learning in the Content Areas, 3rd Ed. Scottsdale, AZ: Holcomb Hathaway.

Larkin-Hein, T. (2001). On-line discussions: A key to enhancing student motivation and understanding? 31st ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Reno, NV.

Maddix, M. (2012). Generating and facilitating effective online learning through discussion. Christian Education Journal 9(2), 372-385.

Paris, S. G., & Winograd, P. (1990). How metacognition can promote academic learning and instruction. Dimensions of thinking and cognitive instruction, 1, 15-51.

Sun, Y. & Gao, F. (2016) Comparing the use of a social annotation tool and a threaded discussion forum to support online discussions. Internet and Higher Education, 32, 72–79.

Thomas, M. J. W. (2002). Learning within incoherent structures: The space of online discussion forums. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 18, 351–366.

Wood, K. & Bliss, K. (2016). Facilitating successful online discussions. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 16, (2), 76-92

About the Blogger:

Nance Wilson

Nance Wilson

Nance S. Wilson, Ph.D., is Associate Professor, Chair of the Literacy Department, and Coordinator of Jewish Studies at SUNY Cortland. She can be reached at

Essential Reading

A post from Bernadette


Articles on the International Reading Association (IRA) websiteIRA E-ssentials, provide a range of  “actionable teaching ideas”  on a growing range of literacy topics. These articles are provided free with your IRA membership on the members only section of the website. They are  also available to non–members for a cost of $ 4.99 per article once you create an account on You can download these pdf articles to your computer or any portable reading platform for on-the-go reading access. What is really appealing about the E-ssential topic range is that they are written by well-respected authors in the in the field of literacy (including our own Literacy Beat blogger, DeVere Wolsey). These concise articles include further suggested readings on the topic and incorporate links to multimedia content including websites, blogs and videos. All are strongly situated in real classrooms with strong classroom exemplars. Connections to the Common Core State Standards in the US are also included. Topics  are wide ranging and so far include critical literacy, vocabulary development, visual literacy, assessment, text complexity, writing workshop, motivation and engagement, graphic novels, and adolescent  literacy. Here are some of my current favourites to whet your appetite:

Digital discussions: Using Web 2.0 tools to communicate, collaborate, and create -Brian Kissel, Karen Wood, Katie Stover, & Kim Heintschel.

In this article the authors explore how students can communicate through social media like Facebook and Twitter; how students can collaborate  with others in a global classroom through blogs and wikis; and how students can become creators and composers through VoiceThread and Audioboo.

I hadn’t thought of that: Guidelines for providing online feedback that motivates students to learn– Diane Lapp, with Thomas DeVere Wolsey & Patrick Ganz

Interactions in the classroom are no longer confined to face-to-face (FtF) discussions. In this article the authors provide insights into providing formative instructional feedback  using a range of digital tools that applies the strengths of FtF feedback, in terms of intent, tone, and format, in an online environment.

Critical Literacy With New Communication Technologies -Vivian Vasquez & Carol Felderman

In this article the authors explore components of critical literacy in the classroom including the relationship between language and power and the importance of inquiry-based questions stemming from the interests of children. With the introduction of digital technologies Freire’s notion of ‘reading the word and the world’ takes on new meaning in a  flattened world of global communities. The authors explore the  transformative power of digital technologies to develop critical literacies in the classroom.

Vocabulary Self-Collection Plus, Part 2

By Linda Smetana, Dana L. Grisham and Thomas DeVere Wolsey,

Last week, we introduced Vocabulary Self-Collection Plus (VSSPlus). Our goal in modifying this time-tested approach (Haggard, 1982) for the digital age (Grisham, Smetana, & Wolsey, in press) was to create an intersection where students might interact with each other in face-to-face spaces to add depth to their vocabulary and concept knowledge. At the same time, we wanted to use technology in a generative way (Grisham & Smetana, 2011) so that students became proficient users of technology while learning academic vocabulary related to their science lesson. This week, want to introduce the technologies we used, and share some lessons learned.

We chose two presentation methods, PowerPoint® and Thinglink, for the students’ e-dictionary entries.  However, many other tools are possible options.  Students might use Voicethread, Prezi, or Popplet, for example. In our work with these fifth-graders, we chose to limit the tools to one that is more familiar to them, and one that would be new.  Embedded in the technology task, we also helped students create audio recordings and showed them how to further deepen their word learning using the Wordsift website.


In Wordsift, students type in a word and produce a visual that links synonyms and related words. For example, “melting point” is a science term students in fifth-grade might be expected to know. By entering “melt” into the Wordsift visual thesaurus, students see related terms including Latinate versions and synonyms.  Please see figure 1.  In addition, Wordsift has many other capabilities including creating a word cloud, executing an image search, or sorting words according to academic word lists. Students in our exploratory group did not have access to screen capture tools, but a few used drawing tools to recreate the visual thesaurus they created in Wordsift.

Figure 1: Wordsift Result for “Melt”




While PowerPoint is a familiar tool to many, some features are not widely known.  We recently asked a group of teacher candidates if they knew PowerPoint could support narration they created, and only two responded that they knew of this feature. In our work with fifth-graders, the students use voice recorders to create the audio, and then they attached those to the PowerPoint slide.  We found that saving the slide as a PowerPoint show (rather than a regular PowerPoint) kept all the audio intact and could be used on any computer using free PowerPoint Show software if the regular version of PowerPoint was not available. Many of the students in the class started out exploring Thinglink, but because they were more comfortable with PowerPoint and recognized the time constraints of the task, switched to that format.

Learn more about adding audio narration to PowerPoint by clicking here.


The Thinglink tool intrigued students, but it required some playing around as they tried to figure out how best to use the tool. In PowerPoint, students could add text and images in any order, but in Thinglink, they needed to locate an appropriate image first.  Then, they could use the editing tools to tag the image with the text such as their definitions and rationales.  Find out more about Thinglink and view some examples by clicking here. An additional challenge was to upload the audio portion of the VSSPlus presentations to a podcast sharing site (we used Podbean), then link the podcast to the Thinglink.  To save time and avoid student frustration, we did this for the students.  For this reason, it was very important that students included their group names on the Thinglink as well as in their audio narration making it possible to easily match up the files.  Figure 2 is an embedded Thinglink created by students you can try.

Figure 2: Thinglink: Boiling Point (Click the image to view the interactive Thinglink)

The E-dictionary

We used Wikispaces to create the first page of the e-dictionary which you can see in figure 3 below. Additional pages for future learning can be added easily.  Students and parents can view the work at will, and learn from each other’s presentations. Other wiki tools, blogs, or even a learning management system (Canvas, BlackBoard, etc.) might be used to host the e-dictionary.

Figure 3: E-dictionary on Wikispaces



Moving Forward

The first time out took a little over three hours because students had to learn to use certain aspects of the technology (inserting images, finding images, creating audio files, and so on). However, in the future, they will not have this hurdle, and the task will proceed much more rapidly.  The important aspect of this task is that students had to discuss the terms amongst themselves, evaluate the relevant aspects of images they chose together, plan their audio components, and work as a team to assemble the final product. Throughout the process, they became deeply aware of the relevant attributes of the concept represented by the term and also what it was not, in some cases.

For future VSSPlus projects, we would appoint a Wikispaces librarian whose job is to put the final presentations in the e-dictionary.  Some students were more adept at using the audio recording tools, and would become the audio engineers.  Thinglink aficionados are appointed the go-to person for Thinglink questions, and PowerPoint specialists who know how to link or insert audio, use the drawing tools, and save in PowerPoint Show format would have a place to shine. Finally, a means of sharing the work is needed.  A data projector with each group presenting their work to the class is a good start. If the classroom has a few computers or laptops, students could rotate through stations viewing and listening to the presentations at some stations while doing other academic work at different stations.

We hope you will try VSSPlus. Let us know what ideas you have to change it up and how well your students learned from the experience.


Haggard, M. (1982) The vocabulary self-collection strategy: An active approach to word learning.  Journal of Reading, 26(3), pp. 203-207.

Grisham, D.L. & Smetana, L. (2011) Generative technology for teacher educators. Journal of Reading Education, 36, 3, 12-18.

Grisham, D. L., Smetana, L., & Wolsey, T.D. (in preparation).  Post-reading vocabulary development through VSSPlus. In T. Rasinski, R. Ferdig, & K. Pytash, (Eds.). Technology and reading [working title]. Bloomington, IN: Solution-Tree.

UDL Studio: Deepening response to literature

UDL Studio, a free digital tool (funded largely by the Carnegie foundation) has recently been released by CAST. UDL studio is underpinned by the principles of Universal Design for Learning . UDL Studio  joins other successful digital tools created by CAST. See for example my blog post on LEA Meets Book Builder. UDL Studio enables anyone to create media-rich resources, to actively engage and motivate students, and to respond flexibly to the needs of each learner; thereby ensuring quality and equality in access to learning for all.

UDL Studio offers templates to scaffold you or your students as you create content using multimodal elements, such as text, image¸ video, audio, and animation. You can explore the project library to view previous projects created by UDL studio users.
For example, Katherine Cooper has created a project around Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol. In the screen shot you can see links to audio recording related to character study. Students can also record their prior knowledge of the story through multiple modalities, such as writing, recording, drawing, or uploading a file attachment.

Katherine Cooper

Katherine Cooper

Meanwhile, Matthew Puma has created a resource to support his students while reading SOS Titanic by Eve Bunting. Students can explore historical information relating to the Titanic; inner feelings of the characters; and actions and events within the book. The screen shot below relates to a mind map of themes in the Titanic.

mind map SOS Titanic

My wonderful, final year, elective student teachers have begun to explore the possibilities presented by UDL Studio to encourage immersion in, involvement with, and interpretation of literature (Dwyer & Larson, 2013). We have begun a project around The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas/Pajamas by John Boyne. Our aim is to deepen engagement with the text through close reading to explore the structure of the text; the perspectives of the characters; the use of vocabulary; and historical perspectives relating to the text.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

We really like the tips and resources page which asks you to reflect carefully on how the use of the digital tool enhances children’s understanding of text; enriches the reading experience; and represents information in an engaging manner. The plethora of free digital tools include:

Recording and editing software
Free Sound Editor:
Audio Pal:

Video search engines and editing software
• Blinkx Video Search Engine:
• Truveo Video Search:
• Video editing

Sources for images
• Pics4Learning:
• Creative Commons image search:
• Free Photos:

Animation tools
• Gifninja:
• Picasion:
• GoAnimate:

Dwyer, B. & Larson, L. (2013). The writer in the reader: Building communities of response in digital environments. In Kristine E. Pytash & Richard E. Ferdig (Eds.). Exploring Technology for Writing and Writing Instruction. US: IGI Global

Expressive Learning: Encouraging Students’ Multimodal Expression to Enhance Content Learning

A New Post by Jill Castek

I’ve been exploring the use of iPads to support literacy and science learning in middle school classrooms throughout the school year.  One of the most powerful ways I’ve found to help students make deep and lasting connections to content learning is to design meaningful classroom projects that engage students in working collaboratively to convey ideas  using digital tools that support multimodal expression.  As student design and create, they purposefully use key vocabulary and integrate examples that illustrate their thinking.  Student projects can be celebrated, showcased, and shared with an authentic audience made up of peers, teachers, and the wider community.  They’re also a great way to formatively assess student learning.

Students work collaboratively on digital projects to support content learning.

The Power of Student Collaboration

By working collaboratively, students are challenged to think through the important processes of choosing a focus, reflecting on what they know and how to represent it, and designing an action plan. As peers enact their plans, they critique and rework their representations iteratively until they’re satisfied their work has achieved the intended goal.

Working with iPads has provided students easy-to-use apps that support drawing and annotating images, inserting photographs, and creating voiceover capabilities. These features make it possible for students to express their understanding in multiple ways through multiple means, an aspect central to Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This post focuses on two examples of digital collaborative projects and the apps that supported their creation.

ShowMe for the iPad

ShowMe (see is an FREE iPad app that allows users to use images, drawing tools, and voiceover to communicate ideas.  Once a project is created, it can be shared on the ShowMe website or embedded into any digital forum (blog, wiki, website, etc.)  While this tool is often used by teachers in a receptive way, for example to deliver short lessons or tutorials to students,  I was interested in getting ShowMe into students’ hands so they could use its features creatively to express their understanding of concepts and ideas (thus enhancing and extending content they had learned).

Using ShowMe to Summarize Important Ideas from Reading

Linda Wilhelm’s 7th graders at Valley View Middle School in Pleasant Hill, CA were studying genetics in their Science class.  ShowMe was used to support an enhanced jigsaw activity where students created were expected to weave key ideas from their textbook and web-based reading into a short project that expressed their understanding of the content and provided examples. There were several subtopics; and pairs were assigned one of four themes to convey:  1) Some genes are dominant while others are recessive, 2) Mendelian laws apply to human beings, 3) All cells arise from pre-existing cells through the process of cell-division, 4) Sex cells have one set of chromosomes, body cells have two.

Students were shown a sample ShowMe project created by the teacher to give a sense of what was possible with ShowMe (which included importing images, drawing features, stop and start capabilities, and voiceover).  Then, a project rubric was distributed and discussed with students to convey expectations for the project.  Finally, students were provided time to plan and record their ShowMe projects.

Although storyboarding on paper was modeled and provided as an option, students preferred to draft their ideas directly into ShowMe.  As they drafted, they created multiple takes that were played back and evaluated by students iteratively.  Critiquing and revising with the ShowMe tool was immediate and satisfying for students and sparked careful re-reading and reflection on the texts provided.  It also sparked discussion on important aspects of visual literacy as students carefully thought through what images would best help illustrate their main points.  Throughout, collaboration was evident and a vital part of the digital content creation process.

ShowMe Student Examples

Click on the URLs provided and the ShowMe projects will open in a new window:

Using iMovie for the iPad to Construct, Explain, and Show Understanding

Leon Young’s 6th graders at Realm Charter School in Berkeley, CA were studying plate boundaries during a plate tectonics unit.  They designed and built their own scientific models to show the characteristics of plate boundaries in different locations around the world.   Students were then invited to create a short video using iMovie to showcase and explain their model to their classmates and school community.

Pairs of students worked together to think through how to convey science content through their video productions.  As they discussed shot selection, they showed a keen awareness of audience and purpose and found meaningful ways to explain scientific terms and concepts for those unfamiliar with the content.  As was the case with the ShowMe projects, students created multiple takes and revised iteratively as they reflected on word choice and overall flow of ideas.  The result was a strong and solid representation of what they learned that showcased both creativity and collaboration.

iMovie Student Example

Using Digital Tools to Support Multimodal Expression

When asked about the making these digital products students said the work was “fun, active, and creative.”  Not only did these projects support engagement with content, they also supported the development of vital 21st century literacies.  Students were able to showcase their learning in ways that involved multimodal expression which requires higher level thinking skills such as synthesis, evaluation, and critique (and are also central to the Common Core State Standards).

If you’re looking for a step-by-step guide for the use of ShowMe, iMovie, or other iPad apps that support literacy and content learning, click on the Step-by-step Guide to iPad apps and HandoutForIRAPreCon.  These presentation materials are from the IRA session that Jen Tilson and I delivered in Chicago, IL in May 2012.  Other speakers’ session materials, including Bernadette Dwyer’s handouts, can be accessed from the IRA TILE-Sig website at

Add a comment to this post and share ways you’ve had students to create content and reflect on learning through the use of digital tools.  Sharing examples is a great way to get our collective juices flowing and sparks our creativity.  In the process, we’ll learn about a range of new tools and techniques for teaching and learning with technology. Enjoy!

Personal Learning Environments: Making Sense and Keeping it All Under Control


I’d like to thank our guest poster, Thomas DeVere Wolsey, for a great blog on Personal Learning Environments! Dana

Guest post by Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Meet Dionisio

What? Another digital technology I need to learn? What is a personal learning environment, anyway? To answer that, I want you to meet Dionisio.  He is one very interesting 10th-grade student, much like those you know in 10th grade, 5th grade, and many other grade levels.  There are sides to Dionisio that are not readily apparent at school most of the time.  He plays guitar and records music using a Korg synthesizer app for his iPhone® and iPad® which he then shares with others at SoundCloud. SoundCloud is his favorite sharing site for music because he can sell digital recordings of his work there, and it is always rewarding when someone buys his songs.  Sometimes he posts his work to his YouTube channel, as well.   When he posts work on SoundCloud or YouTube, he often Tweets the URL to his followers and his Facebook friends see the new link, too.

Dionisio really likes music and sharing his creations with friends, but what most people don’t know about him is his interest in the United States Civil War. His interest in the lives of soldiers far exceeds anything his state social studies standards requires.  He subscribes to many Civil War blogs using an RSS feed to keep him updated on new posts.  In his social bookmarking account on Delicious, he has bookmarked almost every website for important Civil War battlefields in order to make them easily accessible.

In addition to his interests that sometimes match school curriculum and sometimes do not, he also maintains a Diigo page and several of his teachers use Edmodo.  A few of his friends use EverNote to keep track of readings assigned by teachers, collaborate with Dionisio on class projects, and catalog information they found on their own. Some of his school presentations appear on Prezi, and some he posted on YouTube.  Many of his teachers ask him to submit work on the school’s course management system (such as Moodle or eCollege).  PowerPoint® projects he created with others in his classes are often uploaded to as they collaborate over the Internet to be ready for class.  Dionisio kept most of the tools and websites bookmarked on his laptop, and then he met a teacher who changed his thinking.

View the YouTube video on the 21st Century student to understand a little more about Dionisio and students like him.

Dionisio’s Personal Learning Environment

You might wonder how Dionisio keeps track of all those online sources. At first, it wasn’t easy; Dionisio found it all a bit overwhelming.  However, one of Dionisio’s teachers recognized that literacy in the 21st century involved more than just reading paper pages and answering questions.  Much more is involved in new literacies (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro & Cammack, 2004). Organizing, synthesizing and constructing meaning from online and traditional resources are critical cognitive skills made even more important as students navigate the digital environments they choose and in which they are asked to participate.  Dionisio’s teacher suggested to him and to his classmates that one way to make sense of all the information they create and that they gather is through the online tool, Symbaloo.  With Symbaloo, Dionisio created a personal learning network with a matrix that included the blogs he followed, the websites he found useful, the classroom management systems his teachers used, and many social and collaborative networking environments.

Because Dionisio realized that some of his learning was associated with specific classes at school, some was his own learning that overlapped with school sometimes, and some was related to personal interests that rarely overlapped with school, he set up his personal learning environment to keep some elements private, some shared with his network outside of school, and some shared with his teachers and classmates.  These networks often overlapped, but Dionisio decided which elements to share and with whom.

In the YouTube video, notice how a 7th-grade student created a personal learning environment in Symbaloo

Welcome to my PLE

How do Students Organize the Personal Learning Environment?

Wouldn’t it be nice to just tell students how their personal learning environments (PLE) should be organized? Include elements A, B, and C, and you’re done! But that would not be very personal, would it? Personal learning environments are organized in a way that makes sense to the person doing the organizing.  Michelle Martin (2007), an adult blogger, organized hers according to the information she gathered, the information she processed, and the actions she takes based on her learning.  Two things are worth noting in her approach: 1. She changed the tools she used to organize her PLE after awhile, and 2. She included traditional paper-based text in her PLE.

The EdTechPost wiki includes many diagrams that illustrate how personal learning environments might be constructed. On the wiki, the diagrams are organized toward orientation: tools, use/action/ people, and hybrid/action/other.  Every personal learning environment is different because each reflects the way the person who created the environment perceives and organizes their learning and the worlds it represents.  Dionisio quickly realized that Symbaloo was a great tool, but he needed multiple entry points for his PLE representing the way he organized his own learning.  He created an account to provide a more public access point for his music and interests in the Civil War.  The page did include links to his Symbaloo and other pages, but some were password protected, and not all his school pages were linked to his page.

What are the Elements of a Personal Learning Environment?
The Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba includes several elements of a personal learning environment. These include production tools, collaboration tools, aggregation tools, and so on (for the full list, click the link).  EDUCAUSE (2009) points out that a key attribute of the personal learning network is that it is learner centered.  Attwell (2006, pdf file) further explores the learner-centered feature of the personal learning environment. He suggests that they are characteristics of life-long learners and that they are informal in nature.  Another key element is the aspect of community (e.g., Grisham & Wolsey, 2006), the idea that much of our creative and intellectual work is part of a larger group, as well.

Why do Personal Learning Environments Matter?

A characteristic of humans is that they try to make sense of the contexts of their lives. The tools they use and the purposes they establish for learning may be the defining features of learning in the coming decades.  How will you encourage your students to create and maintain personal learning environments the promote mastery of appropriate standards and foster lifelong learning as well? Dionisio relied on his teacher to help him learn to organize and make sense of the many online tools he used. Like him, many K-12 students and adults create environments that serve their own purposes that include formal and informal contexts.

At the beginning of the post, we asked what a personal learning environment is.  Simply, it is the approach that users take to individual aggregate content, organize it, and lend context to it. Content may be created by the owner of the PLE or gathered from the Internet and other sources. PLEs are informal mashups, elements of which may be shared with others in the user’s network and learning communities. Finally, educators sometimes provide a basic framework or tool that students might use to start building their own PLEs.

More to Learn:

To continue your own exploration of personal learning environments, visit  Also, read more about the related concepts of personal learning networks (which overlap with personal learning environments), social bookmarking, and content curation.


Attwell, G. (2006). Personal learning environments—The future of elearning? eLearning Papers. Retrieved from

EDUCAUSE. (2009). Seven things you should know about personal learning environments. Retrieved from

Grisham, D. L. & Wolsey, T.D. (2006). Recentering the middle school classroom as a vibrant learning community: Students, literacy, and technology intersect. Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy, 49(8), 648-660. DOI: 10.1598/JAAL.49.8.2

Leu, D.J., Jr., Kinzer, C.K., Coiro, J., & Cammack, D.W. (2004). Toward a theory of new literacies emerging from the Internet and other information and communication technologies. In R.B. Ruddell, & N. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th ed., pp. 1570-1613). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Available:

Martin, M. (2007, April 11). My personal learning envirornment [blog post]. The bamboo project. Retrieved from

Exploring digital tools for literacy

A post from Bernadette

My teacher candidate students and masters students have been weaving in some digital tools for literacy into the before, during and after reading stages of a guided reading lesson. They have explored the affordances and possibilities presented by these digital tools for literacy. The following are some of the most popular digital tools for literacy that the students have explored this past academic year.

Wordle ( or Tagxedo ( ) to create word clouds. For example, drawing attention to difficult or tricky vocabulary in a text; creating synonyms and antonyms for vocabulary; making predictions using an anticipation guide for Charlotte’s Web (E. B. White) or summarising text as in I have a dream speech by Martin Luther King.

Word sift ( as a teaching tool to sift vocabulary in a text. Word Sift captures an inputted text and displays (a) the most frequent words in text in a variety of formats, e.g. in alphabetical order or from frequent to rare; (b) presents Google images and a visual thesaurus of highlighted words; and (c) provides examples of selected vocabulary within the context of the sentences from the original text. Pretty powerful stuff!

Text of speech by Queen Elizabeth II delivered in Dublin Castle,Ireland  on May 18th 2011

For more great evocabulary ideas see Dalton and Grisham (2011)

Electronic reading formats of texts The students have explored the affordances presented by electronic reading formats for deepening response to literature. For example, they have adapted the work of Larson (2009) to create an electronic reading workshop. Elementary school children were asked to create ebookmarks or generate ejournals to capture fleeting thoughts, construct predictions, make connections or clarify difficult vocabulary as they read.
Students have also created threaded discussions using wordpress ( to create class blogs in response to electronic ebooks. Here children can respond to teacher created prompts. In one student’s classroom the children developed their own prompts and responded to each other in an asynchronous discussion format. The class blog helped to develop a community of readers within the classroom. Analysis of the blog discussions suggested that children scaffolded, contested, affirmed or extended each other’s responses.

See Lisa Zawilinski’s (2009) article in The Reading Teacher for an extended discussion of blogging in the classroom.

Finally, my students have used Glogster ( to create interactive multimedia format posters. These glogs helped children to elaborate their response to ebook formats. For example, in one study the children created video dramas of weather forecasts predicting a storm as the characters in The Wildflower Girl (Mc Kenna, 1994) crossed the Atlantic; or developed meanwhile episodes where the children became involved in authorship to extend the original story crafted by the author.

Tús maith,leath na hoibre (a good start is half the work)! We have made small steps this past academic year. Next year we will extend and grow the affordances presented by digital tools for literacy in the classroom. My fellow bloggers at Literacy Beat have provided me with many inspiring ideas………..
Dalton, B., & Grisham, D. (2011). eVoc Strategies: 10 Ways to Use Technology to Build Vocabulary. The Reading Teacher, 64(5), 306-317.
Larson, L. C. (2009). Reader response meets new literacies: empowering readers in online communities. The Reading Teacher, 62(8) 638-648.
Zawilinski, L (2009).HOT blogging: A framework for blogging to promote higher order thinking. The Reading Teacher, 62(8), 650-661.

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